Whenever a beginning bench-builder bends my ear, the No. 1 question they have is usually about what species of wood they should use to build their workbench.
They’re almost always vapor-locked on the issue and unable to proceed on their design until they pick the perfect species.
In my experience, there is a far better way to ask this question: What woods shouldn’t you use to build a bench? That list is far shorter.
Depending on your workbench’s design, the list of verboten species could be entirely empty. You can make a fantastic workbench out of the cheapest white pine 2 x 12s at the home center – just make the top 5” thick and the legs 5” x 5”. It’ll be awesome.
But people don’t want to use white pine I guess, because that’s for stud walls and skateboard ramps. Or it’s too cheap. Or it dents too easily. So I know that I can’t talk anyone into making a white pine bench, no matter how hard I try.
So here’s are the important characteristics of an ideal workbench wood that won’t get you laughed out of your local woodworking guild.
1. It should be stiff. A stiff species will allow you to cross long spans with the top unsupported by aprons or braces, which can get in the way of your clamps. To determine how stiff a species is, check out the chart I’ve included here that I lifted from my book, “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use.” (It’s fun to violate my own copyright.)
2. It should be heavy. Heavy benches are superior to lightweight benches, which you chase around your shop. A heavy bench moves only when you want it to. Check the wood’s specific gravity – its weight compared to water. That’s the measuring stick for this characteristic.
3. It should be inexpensive. You don’t have to buy steamed European beech to make a great bench. Until recently, European beech was expensive in this country (prices are falling). European cabinetmakers chose beech for their benches because it was stiff, heavy and cheap.
4. It should be readily available. Workbenches are great. The only thing greater than a workbench is all the great stuff you get to build on it. Don’t delay building a bench because you’re having trouble finding the wood.
5. It should resist denting. This is a bit of a minor point because I’ve worked on benches that dent easily. And it’s no big deal when they get dented because it won’t affect the quality of your finished work and you eventually work the dents out when flattening the top. To determine how dent-resistant a species is, check out its Janka scale rating.
6. It should be light in color. I wouldn’t enjoy working on an ebony bench. It would be really hard to see what I was working on. You’re often sighting things against your bench, such as when you peer down your plane’s sole to see if the iron is centered in the mouth. A light-colored bench makes this easy. Plus, the benchtop reflects light, making the shop appear lighter.
7. It should be easy to work and glue. Purpleheart and hickory get used to build masochist workbenches. You’re going to have to flatten the top of your bench some day, so make it easy on yourself, long-term.
So what woods excel in many of these categories? Plenty. In my neck of the woods, yellow pine, ash, white oak and red maple would all be outstanding low-dollar benches. (Especially ash. Thanks to the emerald as borer, ash is about as cheap as yellow pine these days.) Oh, and don’t be afraid to mix species. If you’re short on cash, make your base from a junk species and spend the money on the top. You can always replace the base.
Here are some other choices. A little pricer but still solid: white oak, white maple, birch and beech.
OK, but not my first choice: poplar, red oak, hickory (too hard to work).
Probably not, except in a pinch: walnut, cherry (too dark and a little soft), basswood (too soft), sycamore (too hard to work the quartersawn faces), and almost all the exotics (too expensive and sometimes difficult to glue).
So if the question about wood species is a red herring for bench builders, what do I think is the most important question about bench design? Here it is: How soon can you start building?